Md.'s new U.S. marshal takes heat, keeps cool He once delivered Watergate tape subpoena to Nixon


The moments testing U.S. Marshal George K. McKinney in his 30-year career were the high-intensity variety that helped build his reputation for keeping cool under pressure.

He was the man who served President Richard M. Nixon the subpoena ordering him to turn over the Watergate tapes.

A few years earlier, he helped stave off Viet Nam protesters bent on shutting down the Pentagon.

And when Cassius Clay reported to an Army post in Houston to refuse induction in 1967, Mr. McKinney was dispatched as one of the deputy marshals assigned to keep the peace by officials fearing an uproar.

Years of high-profile federal law enforcement and security jobs allowed Mr. McKinney unique opportunities as eyewitness and participant to history. And when he recently became U.S. marshal for Maryland, the top marshal's job here, Mr. McKinney, 60, made history of his own as the first African-American to hold the job.

It is a point of special pride with him.

"I think it says a lot about the district of Maryland and the country," he said. "Minority marshals are relatively new. But it's something I've aspired to ever since I was a deputy. I wanted to be in the top job."

Despite his nearly 20 years working in Washington, the Morgan State University graduate and his wife, Mildred, have stayed in Baltimore.

They moved here in 1952 and raised five children.

He said he arrived on his current job to find a well-run office with morale high among his 100-person staff, who provide security for federal officials and the federal courts among other jobs. He promised no big shake-ups.

Recently, as a bomb scare emptied the federal courthouse and blocked surrounding streets, Mr. McKinney appeared calmly, quietly on the scene. The scare proved to be unfounded.

"He wasn't wringing his hands, he wasn't yelling out orders," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg, who has worked with Mr. McKinney on security matters for 10 years. "He always appears to be, and is in fact, in control of the situation. My overall impression of him is one of quiet competence."

Even so, some of his experiences would have unsettled most.

Delivering that subpoena for the Watergate tapes to the president of the United States, for instance. At the time, April 18, 1974, Mr. McKinney was the brand new U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia.

That day U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica gave him the subpoena with instructions to "get this thing served."

Mr. McKinney called the president's chief defense counsel, James D. St. Clair, to inform him about it and his plan to serve it immediately.

"He told me, 'Forget it, you can't deliver it, it's unconstitutional,' and he hung up on me," recalled Mr. McKinney. The marshal called back and politely threatened to deputize every Secret Service agent in the White House, giving them authority to do the job for him.

"He hung up again," Mr. McKinney said.

Within a few minutes though, the lawyer was back on the line, inviting Mr. McKinney to the Old Executive Office building and a meeting with the president.

The whole thing was unnerving, Mr. McKinney recalled.

"Anytime you're dealing with the chief executive in an adversarial role -- that's different," he said, able to laugh about it now. "But I was worried. When backed into a corner, there was no telling what Nixon might do."

His chief fear was that delivering the subpoena to the man who had just appointed him to his job, he might promptly be fired.

Walking into an outer office, the document in hand, Mr. McKinney saw the president standing in the next room.

They exchanged glances, but no words.

Ultimately, it was Mr. St. Clair who stepped forward to take the subpoena from him. He read it, asked a few questions, that was it. The marshal and his deputy left without incident.

Mr. McKinney started in law enforcement as a deputy marshal in Baltimore in the mid-1960s after graduating in 1956 with a degree in psychology from Morgan State, and after a stint as a captain with the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army.

His career choice broke from the occupational paths carved by his parents, both educators. His father headed the philosophy department at Morgan. His mother was registrar at Coppin State College.

"I was the anomaly -- I'm too much of an authoritarian and a do-it-now guy," Mr. McKinney said.

He later accepted a job as a special agent with the National Security Agency and conducted more than 1,000 investigations over five years.

With his appointment as U.S. marshal in Washington, D.C., in 1973, he oversaw security for numerous high-profile criminal trials, including the Watergate and Hanafi Muslim murder trials. Since 1977, he has supervised sensitive security matters at the Department of Justice.

The work -- the investigations, the strategizing -- suited him, he said.

"I like the work involved in getting to the truth -- the methodical approach to determining facts. And the same skills are used in management," he said.

"He is just a very pleasant, decent, capable guy, who was well-respected and did his job well," said Jerry Rubino, the Justice Department's director of security and emergency planning staff. The two worked together for more than a dozen years. "He's always able to take a serious situation and find some humor in it. It's difficult to shake him or rattle him."

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